Shadow Government

What Bush got wrong

By Philip Zelikow The very successes of the Bush administration that I mention here and here accentuate two important failures in its vision for the world. Failure #1: Having done so much to place governance front and center in tackling transnational issues, the United States then tended to define its desires with a rhetoric of ...

By Philip Zelikow

The very successes of the Bush administration that I mention here and here accentuate two important failures in its vision for the world.

Failure #1: Having done so much to place governance front and center in tackling transnational issues, the United States then tended to define its desires with a rhetoric of democratization. Not only did this fail, the character of the attempt was so flawed that the result may even have been counterproductive. Why?

First, no government doctrine is better regarded than its policy exemplar. "Containment" had the Marshall Plan and NATO. Bush’s "democracy agenda" has the occupation of Iraq.

Yes, the impulse to human dignity and a measure of freedom is universal. Yes, the rhetoric of democracy evokes themes also familiar to FDR, JFK, and Reagan. Yes, Bush’s Second Inaugural has gracefully constructed subtleties in its argument. Nonetheless, most of the rhetoric of democratization was too narrow in the way it spoke to the issues that plague modern societies. Responding to wrenching, often horrifying struggles, the administration seemed to offer up answers that evoked generic recipes from America’s political cookbook.

Furthermore, the Bush administration’s studied indifference to moral issues in the treatment of enemy captives, especially during its first term, tore its credibility to talk to others about right and wrong.

The net result was that, around the world and in American politics, the administration fatally compromised its ability to shape the discourse about values in governance.

Failure #2: Having developed a powerful diagnosis of global conditions and opportunities, the administration failed to develop a meaningful conception for global cooperation.

The usual criticism is that the first Bush administration was unilateralist. This criticism is exaggerated. Despite the temperamental inclinations of a few officials, the administration constantly sought allies and occasionally found them.

A more accurate judgment is that the administration was sectarian. The administration tended to slide into diplomatic strategies of division (friends and not-friends) rather than developing more challenging and labor-intensive strategies of inclusion.

The second Bush administration reversed some of these patterns. It has built solid coalitions on a number of important issues.

But the opportunity to offer a larger global framework was gone. In other words, like President Clinton — though for very different reasons — President Bush has also not been able to build up a vision for global cooperation able to build durable structure atop the foundations for a "new world order" that had been bequeathed by the successful diplomatic settlements of 1990-1991.

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is also a former government official, having held posts in five previous administrations.

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